NBA: Superb Stephen Curry catapults Golden State in play-offs
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during Game 1 of the NBA basketball Western Conference semi-finals against the Los Angeles Lakers in San Francisco, Tuesday, May 2, 2023. (Photo: AP)

The first round of the 2022/23 National Basketball Association (NBA) play-offs concluded last Sunday (April 30) with the only Game 7 of the round and was capped by a jaw-dropping performance from Stephen Curry, who scored 50 points to catapult the Golden State Warriors past the Sacramento Kings and into the Western Conference semi-finals.

Curry, who became the first player in league history to score 50 or more points in a Game 7, surpassed Kevin Durant who dropped 48 in 2021 for the Brooklyn Nets, in a loss against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. In addition to surpassing Durant's record, the 35-year-old became the all-time leader in Game 7 three-pointers, having netted 25 in his career, overtaking Ray Allen's mark of 22.

Curry and the Warriors, after the high of beating the Kings twice on the road, faced LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night for Game 1 of an anticipated mouthwatering series, but came up short in a 112-117 loss. Up to the start of this series, Curry had won 15 of the 22 games and three of the four play-off series he has faced against LeBron, but the Warriors will remember their best-ever NBA regular season in 2015/16, where they historically finished73-9 and that same year, they inconceivably blew a 3-1 lead to a LeBron-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the finals, to go on and lose 3-4.

The Lakers closed out the regular season in a canter, to qualify for the Play-In Tournament, got past that hurdle to finish as the No. 7 seed, then summarily dispatched the Memphis Grizzlies (4-2) in the first round to become the first-ever play-in qualifier to win a play-off series.

Now they have locked horns with the defending champions and wrestled away homecourt advantage in a series that may go a long way, possibly all the way. The road has been a major challenge for the Warriors all season, but they came up big last week in Sacramento, twice. However, these Lakers are much more experienced and will exploit their height advantage. If LeBron and Anthony Davis can remain healthy, this may be a longshot for the Warriors.

Not to be outdone, and emerging from deeper than the Lakers, the Miami Heat qualified as the No 8 seed in the Eastern Conference after surviving the play-in, then won a hard-fought series against the Milwaukee Bucks, who finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA. They lined up across from the New York Knicks for the start of their conference semi-final series last Sunday and, when the dust settled, emerged with homecourt advantage in their grasp after a 108-101 victory.

The Knicks advanced to the second round of the Eastern Conference play-offs for the first time since 2013 after getting past a disappointing Cleveland Cavaliers team who failed to live up to the billing, but they could not contain a fire-hot Jimmy Butler and his troops in Game 1. The Knick made amends in Game 2 Tuesday night, winning 111-105, relishing in the absence of Butler, due to injury,and bolstered by the return of Julius Randle from injury. These teams have had a storied rivalry and a dogfight is expected in this series, especially if Butler is able to return in short order.

The Eastern Conference Semi-finals also features the Boston Celtics, with the league's second-best regular season record (57-25), going against the Philadelphia 76ers, who registered the only sweep in the first round against the Brooklyn Nets and have been waiting for next up since April 22.

Boston closed out their series (4-2) against the Atlanta Hawks on April 27 and welcomed Philadelphia on Monday (May 1) into TD Garden for semi-final Game 1. The 76ers were without the NBA's newly crowned Most Valuable Player (MVP) Joel Embiid, but a scoring outburst by James Harden stunned the Boston crowd and led Philadelphia to a 119-115 win.

Harden's 45 points tied his career play-off high and pushed Philadelphia over the hill, but the 76ers needed a number of things to break their way to ensure the win, like De'Anthony Melton, a 39-per cent three-point shooter in the regular season, hit five of his six threes, and Paul Reed stepping into a starting role to collect 13 rebounds (though the 76ers still got out-rebounded 38–28). That being said, Philadelphia now has homecourt advantage which should stand for something in this uphill climb.

Boston won three of this season's four meetings and they also won their last five post-season series against Philadelphia, most recently sweeping them in the first round of the 2020 play-offs. History is on the side of Boston, but the sprained lateral collateral ligament in Embiid's right knee is not expected to be a factor much longer and he should be at full tilt very soon. If Harden can keep turning back the clock and Embiid is at least 80 per cent healthy, this could be an outstanding series.

As for Embiid, he led the league in scoring for the second year in a row with 33.1 points per game and added 10.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists in his 66 appearances this season. The last seven-footer to win a scoring title was Shaquille O'Neal in 2000, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players that tall to have won consecutive scoring titles.The MVP award is a crowning achievement for an athlete whose career could have flamed out entirely after he spent his first two full seasons sidelined with a foot injury. After finishing as runner-up the past two seasons, Embiid received 73 of 100 first-place votes, Nikola Jokic received 15 first-place votes, and Giannis Antetokounmpo received the remaining 12.

The first series to lead off the conference semi-finals was the Denver Nuggets hosting the Phoenix Suns last Saturday, after they both dominated their first-round series (4-1) against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively. The Nuggets (along with the Lakers) have been the most injury-free team this post-season and they not only brushed aside their opponents in Game 1 (125-107), but also scored a major victory (97-87) in Game 2 on Tuesday to establish a firm hold on the series. Despite this, the Suns vs Nuggets semi-finals is a matchup worthy of the next round as it features a pair of former MVPs in Nikola Jokić and Kevin Durant, a potential future MVP in Devin Booker and a clash of two of the NBA's top playmakers — Chris Paul and Jamal Murray.

Unfortunately for the Suns, Paul suffered a groin injury with five minutes left in the third quarter of Game 2, with Phoenix leading 59-51. The Suns were outscored by 18 points in the game when Paul was not on the court, underscoring that he is the catalyst that fuels the Phoenix offence. He will miss Game 3 tonight and Game 4 on Sunday, which could spell trouble if they can't find a winning formula in his absence at home in Footprint Center.

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